Parents on Planes Don’t Owe You a Bribe

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We have officially achieved peak service-economy entitlement: According to an op-ed by Damon Darlin in Sunday’s New York Times, parents flying with screaming children should consider handing out goody bags to their neighbors on the plane “as a pre-emptive move to fend off criticism from people like me.”

By passing out little bags of candy like the host of a 3-year-old’s birthday party, Darlin writes, the harried parent is doing “what economists call signaling. You are letting the recipients know you care about their happiness, whether you really do or not.”

In other words, only preemptive bribing makes it okay for other people to inconvenience you. Strangers on a plane are indistinguishable from the corporate entities you buy services from or people you hire to do a job. They should appease you and placate you like it’s their fucking job.

Is Darlin only offended by babies who scream? Of course not. “You see, I am one of those people who strongly believe we have a right to defend ourselves against rude passengers like seat recliners.” Leave it to a luxury-class activist to apply feverish talk of human rights to a built-in feature of most airplane seats.

Feel free to call such passengers “rude” if you wish to, but the “rights” involved in air travel would seem to be self-evident: You bought a seat for a baby? You have a right to let that baby make the noises that a baby makes. You bought a seat that reclines? You have a right to recline it. Take up the highs and lows of your flying experience with the airline, not with your fellow consumers who are peacefully taking advantage of the service features they’ve purchased. And consider for a moment that your fellow passengers may not have gotten the memo on The One Right Way to use said service, as dictated by the bizarrely empowered modern-behavior police (who apparently don’t recall a time when, shortly after takeoff, the entire plane would recline its seats in unison).

Thanks in part to tiered services and crafty “You’re special! You’re not like the others!” marketing messages, privileged humans now expect to never be remotely disturbed or affected by the proximity of other human beings. You’d think there weren’t 7.4 billion people packed onto our fragile, shared planet, but just one extra-special human — one with a platinum card and a Starwood account and elite flying status on three airlines.

“I live in a comfy luxurious bubble all by myself, paid for by my money, and when anyone pierces that bubble, they should pay for it,” this human announces to the world.

As much as the airlines would love us to continue to bathe in the illusion that air travel is still just as glamorous and relaxing as it was back in the 1960s (when, by the way, everyone was huffing clouds of cigarette smoke the whole time), that’s not the reality of air travel. People of all ages, sizes, and cultures travel, yet some people seem to encounter being shoved together with other humans in a tight space as some kind of personal affront to their god-given rights. Newsflash: If you’re on a fucking plane, count your blessings. Enjoy this brief unfamiliar lack of control, soak in the strange, strange ways of people who don’t think and act exactly as you do, marvel at that piercing shriek and the total absence of legroom, writhe in pain, even, if that’s how it feels for you to fly commercially. And by all means, keep defending the rights of flyers to “defend themselves” against the regular people around them. Fight the good fight, this is a super-important issue, dedicate your whole life to it.

Personally, baby-screech frequency doesn’t bother me half as much as an hour-long secondhand douchey business-dude conversation at shouting volume. (YEAH JASON SAYS WE CLOSED THE DEAL, WE’LL SEE IF WE CAN HERD THOSE CATS ON MONDAY HEH HEH! ALL RIGHT! OKAY MAN! YOU BET! RIGHT RIGHT RIGHT RIGHT!) That is a noise that is exceedingly difficult for me to tune out. Should I suggest that the people who chafe me the most pay alms to me, as a preemptive measure? Should tall humans with long legs or clumsy children give us gifts because they might inadvertently touch us during the course of the flight? Should people who eat “exotic” foods we dislike bribe us just so we won’t mind smelling the foods they packed for the flight? Should we be bribed by that group of high-school basketball players yelling fart jokes at each other across the plane?

I don’t recline my airplane seat anymore, and I had some good tricks for quieting my babies, who thankfully didn’t have any issues that made them louder than most. On one flight, after watching my kid kick the seat in front of her several times without listening to my admonitions to stop, I told her that the pilot had a little map of plane seats that lit up when some kid was kicking too much, so chances were good that he’d come back soon and scold her in front of everyone. It worked. So do I fly into a rage when babies cry, or kids kick my seat repeatedly, because I automatically assume their parents aren’t doing this traveling-with-babies thing The One Right Way? No, because I am a member of a diverse human community and I don’t expect people to apologize to me just for doing what they do in a tight space.

Contrary to popular belief, as our disposable income increases, that shouldn’t necessarily render every single corner of the globe a more palatable place for us to exist. Nor should we feel we have a god-given right to “meet the chef” at any given restaurant and personally deliver our Yelp rating to her face. The lack of umami in her dish isn’t something we should probably critique in the middle of her busy night at work. Celebrities and those in the public eye don’t have an obligation to treat us like their best friends. We might feel like we know famous people well, but we can still recognize that those people don’t know us from Adam. We should hesitate before starting a feverish grassroots campaign against a writer or filmmaker because that person made a movie that didn’t live up to the book, or changed a character in ways we didn’t approve of, or made artistic choices we see as unacceptable. It’s not our personal right to have the stories we love written in ways that we prefer for them to be written. We are not living in a virtual-reality world where we control the horizontal and the vertical of every single experience. If something isn’t exactly the way we want it to be, we aren’t somehow getting shafted by the universe and somebody needs to pay for it.

But tiered service and our classist culture reinforce these reigning delusions that the poor must cooperate, while the rich are taught they can and should live in a comfortable bubble. When you teach people that money buys them the right to live on their own planets, you create a planet populated by elitist Donald Trumps and Donald Trump wannabes, see also: idiots who believe the stupid thoughts in their heads and the ill-considered words out of their mouths are pure genius because their money has insulated them from direct challenges to their authority. If that sounds like a stretch, recall Trump’s whiny, thin-skinned reaction to a crying baby and his implication that the baby’s mother should know better than to bring her infant anywhere near him. To Trump (and ignorant people like him) almost any human being who doesn’t do the exact things he does and make the exact sounds he makes is a complete loser.

So the next time you’re on a glorified bus in the sky, try to adjust your expectations. Focus your ire on company policies you abhor, or on individuals who endanger others with their recklessness or rage, not on human beings who are attending to their offspring or their screwed-up backs or their lack of sleep over the course of 20 hours of travel. When you try to make the people around you feel ashamed for the smallest encroachment on your personal sense of calm, you aren’t fighting for the rights of anyone or anything. You’re an intolerant human who lives in a bubble of privilege and therefore can’t handle the faintest reminder that you’re just another person on the globe.

The world isn’t your elite-status fluffer. Being a member of the world community means tolerating those who are younger and older and lighter and darker and bigger and smaller than you, and tolerating those who have different ideas from yours on how to live. Scrape that elite status out of your immature, enfeebled brain and recognize that you are just an ordinary person among 7.5 billion ordinary people.

Stop thinking about what’s best for you and think about the 200 other people on the plane or the millions of people who are suffering in your country or the billions suffering abroad. Stop putting yourself at the center of some luxury-branded experience, in which you can and should deliver a verdict on the quality of service offered by every human around you, and start seeing yourself as part of the human race.

No one owes you a preemptive apology just because you’re a control freak. You aren’t always in control, like it or not. You might just find that fact relaxing, if you lean into it. You might even find it much more comfortable. The people around you certainly will.